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Commission report on socio-economic implications

Cultivation of genetically modified plants: Few facts; many preconceived ideas

Last week, the European Commission published its report on the possible socio-economic implications of GMO cultivation in Europe. Socio-economic criteria are being discussed as a basis for the regulation of GM crop cultivation at national level. The report is based on information provided by the member states. According to the Commission, much of the information provided so far is not statistically documented, and there is a dominance of preconceived, subjective opinions of GMO cultivation. The few countries with experience of GMO cultivation reported a positive economic benefit from the cultivation of Bt maize and herbicide-tolerant soya beans. The Commission recommends developing methods to record the socio-economic impacts of GMO cultivation in a more standardised manner.

EU Consumer Protection Commissioner John Dalli: “I firmly believe that this report creates an opportunity… to embark on an objective discussion on the potential role of socio-economic factors in the management of GMO cultivation in the European Union.”

The Commission’s socio-economic report was published in response to a request made by the Environment Council in December 2008 and is based on a questionnaire sent to the member states. According to the Commission, because of the limited number of GM crop-growing areas in Europe, much of the data provided by the member states is not statistically documented. The available information on measurable economic impacts comes from the few EU countries in which GM crops are grown. So far, GM crops have been grown in only seven member states. Cultivation of insect-resistant Bt maize (in Spain, Portugal, Romania and the Czech Republic) resulted in yield increases of between seven and 12.5 per cent in areas infested with the European corn borer. According to information provided by Romania, GM soya beans produced an average yield increase of 31 per cent compared with conventional crops. The accession of Romania to the European Union meant that cultivation of GM soya beans had to stop because this variety is not approved in the EU.

Some of the positions held diverge widely from one member state to another, particularly those concerning the feasibility and costs of ensuring the coexistence of GM and conventional products throughout the seed-to-shelves chain. Other submissions describe potential consequences for biodiversity and the commercial attractiveness of products, as well as changes to farming methods. The Commission found that many of the contributions showed “limited fact-based background on the specific European context”. In many cases, socio-economic implications for the country in question were simply deduced from the literature and from experiences in third countries. Statements about impacts on downstream sections of the production chain (e.g. transport, insurance, administrative activities, employment/work patterns and consumer choice) were usually based on opinion rather than on scientifically or statistically documented facts.

Many of the contributions from member states expressed the view that ethical aspects should play a more important role in the future assessment of GM plants. They also suggested that assessments should pay greater attention to European policy areas like the internal market, the Common Agricultural Policy and environment protection, as well as to legal opportunities and constraints at international level (WTO agreements and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety).

In order to fill certain data gaps, the report also contains information taken from international scientific literature on socio-economic assessments. The data primarily describes the economic impacts at farm level. The evaluation of the international data shows that Bt plants can be commercially beneficial for farmers in industrial and developing countries. The advantages stem from higher yields and a reduction in the use of chemical insecticides. Smallholders tend to benefit more than large farms in industrial countries from the use of Bt crop plants. By contrast, herbicide-tolerant GM plants rarely led to yield increases, with a few exceptions. The success of these plants is based largely on improved weed control, simplified field management, no-tillage cropping and time savings.

According to the EU report, there are hardly any studies on the economic impacts on the downstream stages of the seed-to-shelves chain. The existing studies are based on economic modelling and the results vary widely.

Information on social impacts of GMO cultivation in the food chain is available in only a few isolated cases. In addition, there is hardly any experience with methods for predicting socio-economic impacts before the approval of new GM plants.

The Commission therefore recommends developing more reliable factors and indicators so that socio-economic impacts of GMO cultivation can be recorded in a consistent manner throughout the food chain and across the European Union. The Commission also recommends considering how a broader understanding of socio-economic aspects could be used in the regulation of GMO cultivation. According to EU Commissioner John Dalli, the report “creates an opportunity to embark on an objective discussion on the potential role of socio-economic factors in the management of GMO cultivation”.

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